Patrick Malahide played Leonid Kleist, long-suffering Prime Minister to Timothy Dalton’s sorta-ruthless dictator Boris Pochenko, in the not-even-disguising-it’s-a-fairytale “The Beautician and the Beast” (1997). This movie was really more of a jumped-up television movie than a theatrical release, with a paper-thin premise from the get-go and a completely predictable plot. Despite these shortcomings, the film manages to be somewhat entertaining (if you’re not expecting a lot), and Mr. Malahide’s performance was a large part of the reason why, even though he wasn’t given much to work with.
An Offer She Can’t Refuse
The premise is spelled out rather blatantly in the title and the film doesn’t waste time getting to it. Noo Yawk beautician Joy Miller (Fran Drescher, complete with trademark nasal accent), is discontented with her life, but doesn’t want to be rescued by a handsome prince (as we see from an animated dream sequence). She makes the front pages of the tabloids after heroically rescuing some animals from a fire at her beauty school. Visiting Slovetzian official Ira Grushinsky (Ian McNiece, moonlighting from “Doc Martin” with a faux eastern European accent that slips around all over the place) spots Joy’s picture in the paper and, mistakenly believing she’s an actual teacher as opposed to beauty instructor, decides she’d be perfect to bring back to Slovetzia, a postage-stamp-sized country made up just for this occasion. He makes Joy an offer she can’t refuse (if she did, there’d be no movie) – namely, $40,000 U.S. for the job – and she drops everything to go.
It’s only upon arrival in Slovetzia (sandwiched between Hungary, Romania, and the Ukraine) that
Bert Grushinsky discovers he’s made a terrible mistake and has hired a beautician rather than an actual science teacher for his President’s children. That’s the trouble with inadequate job interviews! We’re also given a few hints that all may not be well in the state of Slovetzia, as people deface Pochenko’s posters in the street and throw eggs at cars bearing his insignia. Fran assures Grushinsky that she can convincingly fake her way through the teaching gig, and off they go to the castle – because all eastern European widower semi-dictators live in big, moody castles, don’tcha know.
Taking her first look around,
Fran Joy comments that no one looks very happy in the big, moody castle and she’s answered by the humourless Kleist, carrying a clipboard in the best bureaucratic style: “In Slovetzia, hard work today, happiness tomorrow.” Grushinsky introduces the Prime Minister to Fran and Kleist proceeds to rattle off a perfunctory greeting: “Welcome to my country, I trust you will find everything to your liking, if you need something please don’t hesitate to ask… him.” [points at Bert] before immediately leaving, because he’s obviously got better things to do. Kleist and Grushinsky must be from different Slovetzian provinces, because Kleist holds onto his accent a lot better than Bert. Be forewarned that from here on in, eastern European clichés and stereotypes fly thick and fast.
Beautician Meets Beast
Kleist doesn’t make much of a secret of not being overjoyed at the teacher’s arrival. When Pochenko (doing his best Josef Stalin impression, down to the porcupine-quill hair and braid-laden grey military uniform) assembles an honour guard to greet Joy, she’s late to the party and Kleist gives a snarky little smirk, eyeroll, and head toss in response. Pochenko is pretty much the Slovetzian version of Captain von Trapp, minus the singing. He doesn’t spend time with his children, doesn’t understand them, and has somewhat antiquated ideas in the “seen not heard” mold about how they’re to be raised. Clearly he’s a ripe subject to be loosened up, humanized, and modernized by a Noo Yawk beautician – yes, you see it coming from miles and miles away.
The kids are not entirely without western influences, as eldest daughter Katrina (Lisa Jakub) proves when she drags Joy out to an underground club. She has ulterior motives, though, as she’s really there to meet with her Cute Young Dissident boyfriend, Alexander Gurko (Timothy Dowling), who’s there to conspire with other dissidents and overthrow her father’s power in some unspecified but likely non-violent way, because this is a decidedly uncomplicated fairytale. Fran and Katrina flee the club when there’s a surprise police raid, only to be caught red-handed(?) by… Kleist. He’s there to arrest Gurko but he appears distinctly unsurprised to find Katrina and Fran, giving a slight eyebrow raise of satisfaction. If we didn’t already know he was the Designated Bad Guy™, this was our big clue.
Parenting, Dictator Style
Kleist hauls Katrina and Fran on the carpet in front of Pochenko, where we discover his ideas about his eldest daughter’s life are even more antiquated than those about his other children, if possible. She’s to have an arranged marriage at his choice and discretion, and most of all she’s to stay away from Cute Young Dissidents who could put her in danger. He’s equally angry at Fran for enabling Katrina. Kleist attempts to defuse the situation (or more likely, get his own plans underway for quietly disposing of the nanny) by saying her conduct really shouldn’t be Pochenko’s concern, resulting in Pochenko barking at Kleist for daring to determine what should and shouldn’t concern him, and throwing Kleist out of his office. Clearly the nanny’s presence is already disrupting Kleist’s well-ordered machine.
Greeting the Common People
Fran starts the process of humanizing Pochenko over a late-night kitchen snack-finding scene, where he improbably compares her to his late wife (really??) and pours out his heart to her, lamenting that the job of running a country isn’t all “smashing dissidents”, it’s actually hard work. However, he seems to be won over by Fran’s ability to make a turkey sandwich and lecture him about the effects of mayonnaise on his heart. The next day, they go out together to say hello to some serfs with whom Fran’s already on a first-name basis (of course), while a confounded Kleist watches through binoculars. Confused by his boss’ change in demeanour (“He’s saying hello,”) and not liking the situation at all, he decides to follow them. This leads to one of the best scenes in the movie as Kleist takes an entire pack of both uniformed and plainclothes secret police with him. They’re woefully obvious about tailing Pochenko through the woods and Kleist’s own attempt at going incognito seems to consist entirely of wearing a pair of round, dark sunglasses (very flattering on him) and a mac. He and the rest of the men try to act nonchalant when they’re spotted by Pochenko, and it’s actually genuinely hilarious as they stare aimlessly off as they pretend they just happened to be there. While Kleist agonizes, “He’s doing something much more dangerous. He’s being spontaneous”, Pochenko drags Fran off to tour a factory and meet even more workers (to the strains of the old U.S.S.R. anthem, “L’Internationale“), now that he’s got the hang of greeting peasants.
A Danger to the State
The trip to the factory results in a spat between Fran and Pochenko as she brings the concepts of trade unions, strikes, and overtime to workers who’ve never heard of such things before. Perhaps in defiance or in the service of True Love (or because it was in the script), she also sneaks Katrina down to the dungeon (yes, there’s an actual dungeon) to meet secretly with her Cute Young Dissident boyfriend. Meanwhile, Kleist tries desperately to convince Pochenko that Fran is a dangerous influence, noting that she’s inciting workers to strike and calling her “a loose cannon aimed straight at [his] presidency”, even as the international press is picking up news of Pochenko’s potentially weakening hold on power. No doubt Kleist will be even more worried when Fran talks Pochenko into not only shaving off his mustache, but making his big international summit into a party and, to prove he’s “the bigger man”, releasing Young Dissident Boyfriend as the grand finale. Pochenko agrees to everything, provided that Fran organizes the party.
Shaving off mustaches appears to be a crucial first step in humanizing dictators as Pochenko begins to change his ways, to his underlings’ consternation. He’s uncharacteristically late for meetings, abandoning his usual uniforms for double-breasted tailored suits, writing and signing his own decrees before his ministers can even get a look at them, and keeping potpourri on his desk: “Our country is destitute but at least we will go down smelling of… apples,” sneers Kleist. Pochenko even decides, under Fran’s influence, to give the workers what they want and let them have strikes because “a happy worker works harder”; when Kleist attempts to protest that it’s a “recipe for disaster”, Pochenko’s brilliantly witty riposte is, “Talk to the hand.” Eeeeyeeeaaaahhh, that’s a lame Nineties thing that went out of fashion fast (thankfully). Adding to Kleist’s woes, he manages to wring from Bert that Pochenko is planning on letting Young Dissident Boyfriend go at the party. He goes to Pochenko to protest; when Pochenko says that it will make him “a statesman”, Kleist pragmatically replies, “It will make you a corpse!”, noting that it would only take one freed dissident to bring Pochenko down.
A Grand Soirée and a Little Blackmail
Meanwhile, during a mistaken identity massage scene (really), Fran learns that Pochenko is (improbably) developing feelings for her, just as she is for him. She decides to come clean to him before the party, admitting that she’s not a teacher, she’s a beautician. Luckily for her, Pochenko’s all fine with it because his children are “blossoming” under her tutelage and furthermore, Fran looks so lovely in her ballgown that he can’t resist her (gag). The night of the big party arrives and Kleist (who looks smashing in his tux, by the way) is left to fume on the stairs while everyone has a great time and Fran and Pochenko dance. Of course, no one wants to dance with Kleist because he’s the Designated Bad Guy, which just goes to show you how unrealistic this story is.
Running outside the gates to snag Yuri, Pochenko’s youngest son who’s suddenly turned into a streaker, Fran runs into an unusually cheerful Kleist sipping champagne on the stairs, and we get the best scene of the movie. She comments on his good mood and he replies that she throws such good parties, they’re what she should stick to. He adds ominously, “From now on, you take orders from me.” If she doesn’t, he’ll go to Pochenko and reveal Fran’s “dirty little secret”, which is not that she isn’t a real teacher, but that she’s been helping Katrina visit Young Dissident Boyfriend in the dungeon. When Fran asks how he found out about it, Kleist answers (with a modest little smirk and shrug), “Oh, please. It’s what I do.” She protests that he can’t blackmail her this way but he counters, “Oh, I know I can. Not for lying about teaching. But for treason? Life sentence in my country.” Fran is forced to reluctantly agree that they have “an understanding”, and Kleist proves he’s the Designated Bad Guy by pushing his advantage. “Good. Your first order. Smile, please. Party!” he says, in the smarmiest possible way. Mind you, it was hard for me to accept him as the Bad Guy when he looked so gosh-darned good even while he was blackmailing.
The big finale arrives and Pochenko gives a bit of a speech about how glad he is to have the opportunity to put right “certain misconceptions” everyone’s had about him and his country – namely, that he’s known as “Boris the Beast” and “Stalin without the charm”. He says he’s just trying to be a leader for his people, which involves knowing when to show a little extra “oomph” (insert expectant pause here) and when not to. To Fran’s (and Kleist’s) great surprise, Pochenko has decided not to release Young Dissident Boyfriend after all, and Kleist (who looked worried for a moment or two) greets the news with an eyebrow lift and smug smirk of satisfaction. This evening is going better for him than he ever could have planned!
The Path of True Love, etc. etc.
Fran argues with Pochenko to no avail – he won’t be persuaded to let Young Dissident Boyfriend go, and furthermore, he’s enraged when she admits she’s been sneaking Katrina down into the dungeons to see him. Pochenko angrily declares that it’s “the way things are” and that they won’t ever change, so the Young Dissident Boyfriend is sentenced to remain in the dungeons for life (as opposed to the far more likely firing squad-type ending one might expect). We then have the Obligatory Break-Up Scene (which makes Kleist look rather pleased) and after a tearful goodbye with the kids, Fran packs her things to return to Noo Yawk the next day.
Pochenko then goes into a weeks-long break-up funk, moping around his castle and not talking to anybody. While he’s out of commission, Kleist seizes the opportunity to put everything back the way he believes it ought to be, signing Pochenko’s name to decrees ordering the army to put down factory strikes, sell off needed grain, and other unsavoury things befitting the Designated Bad Guy. Bert catches him at it but Kleist is unrepentant: “Must the government cease to operate? Besides, I can’t imagine how he would find out about it. Can you?” Aha, he’s overconfident as well as evil!
Arrested for Treason
Apparently Bert can imagine it, because he’s tipped Pochenko off and the latter is not at all pleased with Kleist’s efforts at keeping the government running. Scruffy and unshaven from break-up depression, Pochenko confronts Kleist and asks if, “after all these years”, Kleist thinks he’s stupid; Kleist answers, “No, I think you worse. A president who turns his back on his country for the sake of a pretty face!” Pochenko warns him that if he continues in that vein he “really will show [him] a monster” but Kleist decides to burn his bridges and go for it, declaring that Fran has “put a spell” on Pochenko with “turtlenecks and Twister” (cute little Twister dance here) and “would have [him] destroy the country!” He demands that Pochenko act, so Pochenko does… by putting Kleist under arrest for treason, which, as we’ve already been informed several times, is a life sentence (not a firing squad sentence) in Slovetzia. Kleist makes one final heartfelt plea to Pochenko’s friendship: “I have known your family all my life. Your grandfather’s rule survived the Second World War. Your father’s rule survived Communism. Are you now to be brought down by… a beautician?”
As it turns out, the answer is yes, because it’s that kind of movie. Pochenko implausibly turns up on Fran’s Brooklyn doorstep (in time for her birthday, as if it wasn’t bad enough already), declares himself a completely changed man who’s let Young Dissident Boyfriend go free (and presumably will let his daughter marry him), and has instituted free elections, just like that, all because he’s madly in love with Fran. They share one of the most uncomfortable-looking, least convincing kisses ever (seriously, Dalton looks like he’d rather be anywhere but there) and it’s Happily Ever After for everybody – except Kleist. 🙁
The Beautician and the Beast: A Predictable Fairytale, But Still Fun
So… yeah. Definitely a fairytale, and somewhat predictable from start to finish. Not bad for a little light entertainment – it has some cute moments and there’s some nice Prague scenery – as long as you’re not expecting Tolstoy or something. It really comes across as more of a television movie with better production values rather than a theatrical release. But… if the thought of watching Fran Drescher in something that’s a formulaic mix of “The King and I“, “The Sound of Music“, and “The Nanny” doesn’t float your boat, you might want to give this one a miss. If you’ve seen any one of those three, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting within the first five minutes.
All this being said, I enjoyed Mr. Malahide’s performance even though Kleist wasn’t given that much to do. We got to see some cute sneering (“…apples!”), some ruthlessness (I thought for a while he might have Young Dissident Boyfriend “accidentally shot while trying to escape”, which would’ve made complete sense), some anxiety when he was tailing Pochenko in the woods (he looked seriously cute in those dark glasses, and he hates spontaneity), some confident blackmailing and more cute sneering when he faced down Fran, and some heartfelt pleading with Pochenko over the state of the country. His motives were in the right place even if his tactics were a bit… Old World. I also liked the fact that someone took the time to ensure Kleist was wearing his wedding ring on his right hand, which is an eastern European custom; it’s a tiny detail, but it shows that someone was paying attention.
It was obvious from the beginning that as the Designated Bad Guy, Kleist was destined to get his comeuppance, though I still have trouble believing that a truly ruthless dictator would be satisfied with merely imprisoning his enemies for life. I personally suspect that Kleist had contingency plans for just this sort of situation, and had either pre-arranged for someone to free him or lockpicked his way out within hours of being locked up. Not a very meaty role for Patrick Malahide, but still one that he made fun to watch. He was able to bring many touches of humour to what would have otherwise been a thankless, straight-man villain role in anyone else’s hands. Really, I think the entire movie might’ve been worth it for the blackmail scene and Mr. Malahide in that smashing James Bond tux alone. 😉
You can view a clip from “The Beautician and the Beast” below courtesy of Admin (thanks! 🙂 ) or scroll down for a gallery.